Trout is a favourite fish with anglers – and with chefs. Whether you opt for the brown, rainbow or sea variety, your guests have a treat in store. Clarissa Hyman gets her waders on

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No one really quite knows when you become an old trout. Deeply unfair all round, not least on the Salomidae family. The origin of the insulting phrase is unknown, but trout has been one of the most popular of all fish since the Romans imported them from the Vosges to mingle with those in the mountains of southern Italy in the belief that these northern fish would restore ardour to ‘exhausted matrons’. If there’s a link here with the above, I am not pursuing it.

There are many different kinds of trout. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica points out, they ‘are among the most difficult fishes to classify. Indeed, scarcely two ichthyologists agree as to the number of species that should be recognised.’ The confusion, it adds, stems from irregularities in anatomy, variation in colour, habits and habitats, the ease of hybridisation among trout, and the intermixing of introduced and native species. They are closely related to salmon, often mistaken for char and are usually restricted to fresh water.

Brown trout are native fish found in tarns from the Scottish Highlands to the chalk-stream rivers of the south coast. They have pale skins and distinctive chocolate-brown and orange dots across their flanks. Silvery skinned rainbow trout, with the multi-hued speckles that give them their name, originate in America and were introduced into Europe at the end of the 19th century. Commercial farming of the fish followed, starting in the 1950s.

Rainbow trout farming is by far the more widespread because they’re aggressive, hungry feeders that quickly put on weight. They are fed on fishmeal pellets that turn the flesh pink (a colour apparently preferred by consumers). At their best, they taste light and bright; at worst like wet bandages. Brown trout are farmed in smaller quantities, particularly organically, and taste delicate and sweet. Buy organic brown and rainbow when you can: organic farms generally have lower stocking densities in comparison to non-organic farms, feed is sourced sustainably and fish welfare is higher.

Wild brown trout have pale flesh and a natural, truly delicious fish flavour but stocks are precarious and variable so they are not fished from the wild commercially. Generally, catch-and-release is mandatory, with the fish returned to the river alive. So unless you find yourself in one of the unpolluted, lightly fished Irish or Scottish lochs where large heads of wild brown trout still thrive – and are friendly with a local fisherman or a skilled trout tickler – they are sadly a treat restricted to the lucky few. Tickling is the art of rubbing the underbelly of a trout with your fingers. If done properly the trout will go into a trance after a minute or two (allegedly they feel as if their tummies are being stroked by the weeds on the river bed), and can then be caught unaware and scooped out of the water.

There is much argument over which is the best variety of trout. In fact, the answer depends on the water, the food and their birthplace, but it is generally conceded that the sea trout is one of the most delicious of the family. Unlike the brown trout, to which it is closely related, they migrate to the sea between spawnings, where they feed on the crustaceans that give them their pink colour. However, some populations are threatened and only wild line-caught sea trout from well-managed fisheries, such as rod and line ones, should be eaten.

Baking fish whole in a foil parcel is a great way to keep it moist and tasty – the juices are wonderful when mingled with butter, wine and herbs. Otherwise bake, fry or grill: trout is an excellent everyday fish, affordable and adaptable and generally reliably fresh. Classic dishes include pan-fried trout with almonds or hazelnuts, trout wrapped in Serrano ham or rolled in oatmeal. One legendary dish from northern Italy sees trout stuffed with white truffles. Famously, Richard Llewellyn in How Green Was My Valley (1939) described how his mother would put trout on a hot stone over the fire, wrapped in breadcrumbs, butter, parsley and lemon rind, all bound with the fresh green leaves of leeks. As he recalled, ‘If there is better food in heaven, I am in a hurry to be there.’ Cold-smoked trout has a lighter, more delicate flavour than salmon, and when hot-smoked, the flavour intensity depends on the hardwood used as smoking chips. Both strongly flavoured oak and the milder beech are common in the UK, hickory is popular in the US and in parts of eastern and northern Europe juniper is preferred.

All partner well with creamed horseradish. Truite au bleu (blue trout) is a famous way of preparing trout in which the fish is poached immediately on capture. It should be killed by banging its head on a rock or something else suitably solid, gutted through the gills and left unwashed before being quickly plunged into a boiling, acidulated court bouillon. The vinegar reacts with the slime on the skin to produce an extraordinary blue colour, and the sudden immersion causes the body

to arch into a distinctive crescent shape. The experience is hilariously described by the American food writer MFK Fisher in her book The Gastronomical Me (1943), in which the fish is proudly presented swimming in a bucket at the table before its execution by the Burgundian restaurant’s renowned chef. As the waitress solemnly informs her, ‘Any trout is glad, truly glad, to be prepared by Monsieur Paul’.

Let no-one dismiss the trout, whichever variety you choose, as bland and boring ever again. So speaketh an old trout.

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